88 Keys Takes On a Whole Gender, Kanye's Stuck On One Girl, and Both Are Sort of Jerks
Gone are the days of rap's dumb pride in straight-talk misogyny. The use of auto-tune puts everything crooned through it in quotes; the safe preface of "this is real talk" tempers a rap that Ice Cube would've dropped without caution. Now, anger toward women is couched in twice-removed contempt. It's a less "offensive," but oddly more nefarious form of sexism than the umpteenth rapper bragging about running a train on a chick.
Recent albums from Kanye West protégé 88 Keys (The Death of Adam, on Deconstruction) and West himself (808s and Heartbreak, on Roc-A-Fella) both sound brilliant, but are lyrically problematic. Both guys' relationship raps are absent of insight and oddly confident in blaming it all on the ladies. They're best enjoyed with the very same caveat given to gleefully offensive '90s rap classics of the "Dre Day" era: Ignore the lyrics, dig the beats.
Adam is an out-and-out concept album, but the concept is played-out dude-osophy that even beady soul loops and immaculate instrumentation can't save: Adam's "death" is the symbolic single (every)man "killed" by marriage and children--that's it--repeated over 14 excellent but thick-headed tracks.
Take album highlight "Handcuff Em," all party horns and thumping drums, an apparent ode to kinky sex, but an oddly guarded one. Crew vocals peek over the horns and shout out, "Holla if you ever been placed in handcuffs!" to which 88 Keys responds, "Not on me but I put 'em on her though."
On the next track, "Stay Up! (Viagra)" a guesting Kanye West mocks the vanity of overplanned sex, "You said fuck that man, I'm gonna tape it/ And came before you barely got the tape in/ She had the maid outfit, it's all on her apron" and then 88 Keys comes in with some nonsense about "false accusations." Even the universal comedy of boners and premature ejaculation affront Keys' ego.
West's appearance is one of a few times where Death's thesis gets to derail and anything resembling plurality slips in. Redman injects some stoner self-deprecation on the STD banger "The Burning Bush" and Bilal's Curtis Mayfield sticks some warm sentiments into the otherwise cloying "M.I.L.F."
Most notably, though, is "Close Call," Adam's encounter with a pregnancy scare that'll turn out to be the death knell for bachelorhood. Little Brother's Phonte leaves the justifications behind and gets gangsta-rap ugly with it, giving a potentially pregnant girlfriend two options: "Option one: Take that nigga to the Hoover/ Option two: Fuck on, I never knew ya." It's refreshing in its directness, however mean--an acknowledgement of male cruelty on an album obsessed with triflin' femme fatales.
The tragedy of Adam isn't in the narrative, but in the talent exhausted to illustrate a paper-thin point. Musically, the album's flawless, with between-song interludes, genre-pushing instrumentals (splinters of Krautrock on "There's Pleasure In it," space-funk on "No I Said I LIKED You"), and a tinny modesty to each and every soul-beat.
Not so much a concept album as a context album, Kanye West's 808s and Heartbreak is an explicit response to the rapper's rough year. In the winter, his mom died during plastic surgery--an irony not lost on the rapper, who mentions it on an album-closing live freestyle--and he broke up with his fiancée in the spring. These are less the inspiration for the album and more the fuel--and fumes--for its creation.
808s is a self-conscious sea change. Devoid of rapping and dominated by frosty synths, every song's wrapped in auto-tune, but it's a warm, depressed coat around the vocals, not T-Pain goofiness. On the devastating "Street Lights," Kanye ends the track repeating "life is not fair" like a malfunctioning HAL-9000, a brilliant slow-burn after a genuine postrock build-up of synths and twinkling keys.
All too often, however, West lashes out at his fiancée with last-word obnoxiousness. Maybe there's some conceptual edge to it--West exposing his lack of empathy--but it seems more like big, dumb, wounded bro talk.
"Paranoid" is so obsessed with his ex's paranoia that within 30 seconds, it's clear West is the paranoid one. His condescending advice--"you worry about the wrong things"--makes it real easy to see why the engagement broke off. "Heartless" turns West into a defeated victim and his fiancée someone who made a big dumb mistake she'll regret: "You wait a few months and you will see/ You'll never find nobody better than me." They also happen to be two of the most upbeat tracks on the album.
West also sounds all too aware of just how fucked-up of a confessional 808s is, and it's in those moments that the album is at its most inexplicable and successful. Too many of the lyrics fall back on pseudo-profound parallelism--such as "my friend showed me pictures of his kids/ All I could show em was pictures of my cribs" from "Welcome to Heartbreak" or the switch-up from "you lose" to "you choose" in the last chorus of "Love Lockdown"--but when West digs deeper and is just plain creepy, it's fascinating. From "Say You Will": "When I grab your neck, I touch your soul."
At the end of "Robocop," West mockingly sings to his Los Angeles-based fashion designer ex, "You spoiled little L.A. girl, you're just an L.A. girl." It's as out-there cruel as Phonte's "Hoover" line and becomes similarly, weirdly respectable for dropping the wounded bullshit and going right for the throat.
Musically, too, the best parts are oddball deviations from expected synth dirges, or unpredictable production flourishes. Regal keyboard farts on "See You In My Nightmares" undercut West's seriousness--as does a particularly mindless Lil Wayne verse--bizarre strangled Pterodactyl groans punctuate the silences in "Amazing" and "Love Lockdown," drill 'n' bass stutters slice right through "The Coldest Winter" (the sole song about his dead mother), and click and clack live percussion throughout all make an end-run around musical logic and just feel right, or, right enough.
Like Adam, 808s is in serious need of an oppositional voice, or different point of view stepping in, but West's wounded mini-opus sustains and becomes weirder, better, and uglier without it; Adam just shrivels up and dies.
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